Devil Survivor Intro:
No, it’s not some Japanese reality show; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (hereafter referred to as SMT: DS for love of convenience) is the newest member of Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei family of RPGs.
Which includes a main numbered series that currently stands at three entries (the most recent being 2004’s SMT: Nocturne for the Playstation 2) and multiple spin-off series, including Persona, Devil Summoner, and Digital Devil Saga. SMT: DS falls into the latter category, pioneering its own offshoot of the SMT family tree. True to thelegacy of its kin, however, it features myriad demons that have been lovingly adopted from cultures and mythologies the world over. Ah, demons. Bridging cultural gaps and bringing the world together since time immemorial.
Such a rich ensemble of demons deserves an interesting setting to back it up. Fortunately, SMT: DS definitely delivers on that front. The story is a clash between the amenities and culture of modern-day Tokyo and the timeless struggle between gods, demons, and those eternal in-betweeners, humans. Mythological mayhem abounds as a unique modern take on the Tower of Babel story unfolds; this time around, it’s not humanity building a tower that reaches to the heavens that has rubbed The Powers that Be the wrong way, but rather the existence of the Internet and its limitless capacity for sharing ideas and information. It’s about time, then, for a heavenly ordeal, and you’re going to have to survive it. The story of this ordeal is told through the game’s seven days of increasing intensity. Each day is broken up into half-hour periods, and time moves ever forward as you take part in various conversations and battles, some optional and some required.
With a modern Tokyo setting, a story built around the idea of a week-long tribulation, and even a shared sense of fashion between the main characters, you might be reminded of a certain other DS RPG that came out no so long ago, Square Enix’s The World Ends With You. However, while that title chiefly featured personal struggles against inner demons, SMT:DS places the emphasis squarely on the nasty visible kind that want to skip past the psychological warfare and just rend you to bits. The game is aptly named, and the theme of survival makes itself apparent at every turn as you defend yourself and others from the horrors of the Tokyo lockdown and attempt to find a way past the blockade that the decidedly unhelpful government has built around the entirety of Tokyo’s Yamanote Line.
Normally, humans and demons aren’t exactly going to be fighting on equal terms, but thanks to the modified COMPs (COMmunication Players) given to you by your enigmatic cousin Naoya-- which bear more than a passing resemblance to the handheld gaming device that SMT:DS is played on--the playing field is levelled. Along with e-mail and all that good stuff, these custom-made portables feature programs that can summon demons, fuse them into more powerful ones, and even allow the user to make contracts with them by placing bids through the demonic equivalent of eBay.
Movement in battles relies on the tried-and-true grid-based system of most strategy RPGs in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea and so forth, but the actual process of trading blows with your opponents is not so typical; think more along the lines of Dragon Quest. Battles allow you to send up to four teams (as resources allow) into the fray, each consisting of a human leader and up to two contracted demons. You’ll move the human characters around the battle map, and their demon buddies will provide support through skills that help in and/or out of battle. Exploiting each enemy’s elemental weakness is absolutely vital to your success, and you won’t make it very far if you pay weaknesses and immunities no attention. On the surface it may seem like a simple matching game, but don’t be fooled; this is a challenging game that requires you to build teams with synergy, with each member covering the weaknesses of their enemies and allies as required. Fortunately for those who just want to see the story without immersing themselves too deeply in skin-of-your-teeth strategy, there’s almost always at least one free battle available at any given time, and these fights allow you to earn extra money and experience at your leisure.
Constantly upgrading your roster of monstrous buddies is just about the most addicting thing ever, and thanks to an in-game search feature that facilitates the fusion process (one thing that the Persona series really could have used), building a team of your favourite mythological critters is easier than ever.
While the graphics don’t push the DS in any way, they generally do justice to its capabilities. Character and demon artwork is detailed, colourful, and creative, and you may find yourself wanting to fuse as many demons as possible just to see the gamut of cool creatures that the monster design veteran for the SMT series, Kazuma Kaneko, has created. However, the in-battle graphics aren’t quite as sharp as they could be, and they’re static images; it would have been nice to have seen them brought to life through the magic of animation. As the recent DS Dragon Quest remakes have shown, a bit of enemy animation can really turn up the charm.
The game makes heavy use of electric guitar riffs to hit home the tense atmosphere of survival and apocalyptic drama. The game does an excellent job overall at capturing the growing tension and uncertainty, and this is due in no small part to the overall tone of the music. Unfortunately, there are only 21 tracks. What’s more, only a handful of them are used regularly; there are a few used for interactions, a few for battles, and the rest are saved for special occasions. A bit more song diversity--especially in terms of battle tracks--would have gone a long way, catchy though the few that there are can be.
There’s a good amount of replay value to be had here, thanks to multiple story paths that lead to six possible endings and the New Game Plus feature that allows you to properly enjoy your replays, carrying over the skills that you earned and demon buddies that you had when you finished the game and removing the limit that prevents you from fusing demons that are at a higher level than the main character. Then there’s Lucifer, the resident optional boss extraordinaire who awaits your challenge in New Game Plus and who will wipe the floor with you faster than you can say “Paradise Lost” unless you know exactly what you’re doing. Topping it off with all of the dialogue choices that are presented to you throughout the game, both trivial and nontrivial, there’s plenty of room for varied and interesting replays.
The Conclusion, in handy Q&A format:
Q: “Why might SMT:DS not be my cup of demonic tea?”
A: Don’t come into the game expecting to sightsee in Tokyo: exploration is entirely menu-based and dialogue-driven (in all fairness, there’s not much to do during a blackout anyway). If you’re only interested in the story and want to breeze through battles without any strategic fiddling, you’re going to have to invest some effort in pumping yourself up through fusion and free battles. You should also be aware of the pacing: the first few days take the time to build up the atmosphere of uncertainty and tension before all hell really breaks loose, so patience is a must if you’re in it for the twists and turns.
Q: “Why might SMT:DS be a worthy addition to my DS’s library?
A: If the game’s unique blend of strategy and turn-based RPGs sounds appealing to you, chances are very good that you’re in for a treat. With a compelling, thoughtful, and well-crafted story, addictive game mechanics, and good reasons to revisit this week from hell a few times, SMT:DS is sure to make itself comfortable in your DS for a good while.